Mazda MX-5 Super20 vs. 1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Mazda MX-5 Super20 vs. 1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Mazda's Sports Car Looks Back Toward the Future


Mazda has cranked out so many "special edition" Miatas over the car's 22-year lifespan that the company will probably be credited with creating the idea in the first place. There was the Special Edition, the Limited Edition, R-package, M Edition, Special Touring Option, Tenth Anniversary Edition...and that list doesn't even cover the first half of the car's existence.

It's hard to blame Mazda when buyers are, time and again, willing to spring for yet another badge-and-sticker Miata. Such models are an easy way to score a little extra dough on the corporate balance sheets, and since both the hooker and the john are consenting parties, what's the harm?

With that history as a backdrop, you might expect the MX-5 Super20 — a car created to celebrate 20 years of Mazda's smash-hit sports car — to be the ultimate in special-edition frilliness. Guess again. The MX-5 Super20 is about the farthest thing from a wine-and-cheese-edition Miata as you can get.

Very Limited Edition
The Mazda MX-5 Super20 is not for sale, and never will be. In fact, the Super20's edition is so limited that there's only one in the entire universe. That sound you hear is the collective wincing of collector-car weenies the world over.

When the Super20 originally dropped cover at the 2010 SEMA Show, the scuttlebutt was that this showcar was, in fact, a runner. Not in the sense that the car could limp onto the lazy Susan in Mazda's SEMA booth without overheating, rather that it was fully up to the task of being caned on real roads by real drivers. Our first clue that this car was more than eye candy? The Super20 wears 245/45 Toyo RA-1 R-compound tires. Nobody puts R-comps on a showcar.

Naturally we wanted to test it, and we hounded Mazda constantly. Alas, the Super20's wild popularity led to a busy two-year life on the auto show circuit, during which the color scheme flipped from dark gray with yellow accents to the Hyper Orange Mica with black accents you see here. That's why the car appears to be two years late to its own 20th anniversary party (the first Miata debuted in 1990). Oh, and to further muddle the issue, the Super20 is actually a 2008 MX-5 that received the functional updates — revised suspension geometry and higher rev limit — ushered in during the model's face-lift in 2010. Nothing in ShowCarLand is ever straightforward.

Meet the New Car...
The Mazda MX-5 Super20's functional clues reach critical mass under its school bus yellow hood. Prominent tip-offs are a Flyin' Miata née Cosworth supercharger kit and a Racing Beat header. Cosworth built the long block with Cosworth bearings and pistons while retaining the stock forged crank and rods, and a DPTune-reflashed stock ECU convinces the electrons to cooperate with boost pressure. It all adds up to...well, it turns out there's no official power rating. Mazda, it seems, prefers to let the car do the talking.

To get the stance right, Mazda lowered it, widened the car's fender arches and popped in some 20mm wheel spacers. The stock springs, dampers and bars were binned and replaced with coil-overs straight out of the Mazdaspeed catalog and Racing Beat stabilizer bars. Sixteen-inch Enkei RPF1 wheels were selected to add some purposeful-looking sidewall to the Super20's profile. Finally, the roof — Mazda jettisoned the Super20's soft top in favor of a hardtop, so if you're of the mind that Miatas are good despite their folding roofs and not because of them, you're not alone.

Functional though it may be, the Super20 is first and foremost a showcar, and showy details abound. An old-school decal was added near the driver's headlight and the "pantyline" badge was deleted from the nose. First-generation ("NA") Miata door handles were grafted in. The windshield surround was blacked out to draw a sharper contrast between cockpit and car, and the shiny stuff in the headlights and taillights was replaced with black. Vivid orange stitching lurks on the matte gray suede accents on the seats and door cards. All the welds on the functional roll bar were smoothed out with putty before being painted to increase its showiness by 43 percent.

It all adds up to one of the most aggressive-looking Miatas — er, MX-5s — ever to boast a corporate connection. And it looks terrific, inside and out.

...Same as the Old Car
At its core the Mazda MX-5 Super20 is a supercharged, hardtopped MX-5 with a roll bar, a stiff suspension and wide tires. The similarities to Project Miata, our long-term 1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata, are too close to ignore.

Our project car, funny enough, started life as one of those special-edition cars, a 1997 MX-5 Miata M Edition. We've done some simple bolt-ons to keep things entertaining, safe and reliable — a Kraftwerks centrifugal supercharger kit, Fat Cat Motorsports coil-overs, 15-by-9-inch6UL wheels by 949Racing, a Blackbird Fabworx GT3 roll bar, and a clutch, flywheel and crossflow radiator from Flyin' Miata.

Project Miata's enhancements have done wonders in revitalizing the old car. But can our 15-year old, 2,342-pound, 135,000-mile hoopty really keep up with a juiced-up third-generation MX-5 like the Super20?

At the Track
When it comes to the loud pedal, it's no contest. The Super20 whips Project Miata into a meringue, completing the sprint to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds (5.3 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and clicking off the quarter-mile in 13.8 seconds at 101.6 mph. That's some legit speed, edging the most rapid car Mazda ever produced, the FD RX-7. Project Miata isn't even close, reaching 60 in 7.1 seconds (6.8 seconds with rollout), while the quarter demands a full 15.0 seconds at 92 mph.

Note that running a bone-stock first-gen Miata down a drag strip results in the driver being dead and buried before the car can clear the 1/8th-mile stripe, so it's obvious that Project Miata has come a long way. That said, it can't be described as boasting acceleration that quickens your pulse.

The ol' dog still teaches the young pup a few tricks, though. On the skid pad, Project Miata out-grips the Super20, 1.03g to 1.01. And sticky as Project Miata's 225/45 Hankook Ventus R-S3 tires are, they're classed one rung down the stickiness ladder from the Super20's RA-1s. The green Tic Tac pips the screaming yellow zonker in the slalom too, snaking through the cones 0.3 mph faster than the Super20's 71.3-mph result.

Cake, and Eating It, Too
Not only does Project Miata grip harder, it rides better and is far more confidence-inspiring than the Super20. Project Miata converts corners into exercises in natural fluidity, whereas the Super20 has a more brittle ride and some unusual handling characteristics.

In casual driving the Super20 is benign. Take it by the scruff of the neck, though, and your confidence ebbs. Initial turn-in is instantaneous, but the car's nose pivots quicker than the body can deal with. As the chassis takes this overly gradual set, you anticipate having to make a steering correction to catch a rear-end wiggle that never happens. It's weird. If you load the suspension up and hang in there through a sweeper, the Super20 clings to the road tenaciously, but its two-phase corner entry behavior makes the Super20 difficult to fully trust.

In short, the Super20's suspension calibration feels unfinished. It's possible, though, that damper valving refinements are all that's needed to eradicate the Super20's eeriness and smooth out its ride.

On the Road
There is a palpable difference in civility between the two cars. Project Miata is an orchestra of rattles, squeaks and road noise. Its cabin is dated and tired, and the body looks as if it was parked in the sun in Riverside for a decade. Because it was. The Super20 benefits from years of development, and it shows in its tighter, quieter structure and far less thrashy engine. It's a more substantial car, however, at 2,652 pounds.

No matter. Around town the Super20's blower and short gearing turns it into a shotgun. You can just — blam! — accelerate to extralegal speeds safely within the posted speed limit and — blam! — instantly occupy that hole in traffic. Dip your right toe into its throttle and the thing jumps. Credit a big lump of torque that's available even at low revs thanks to its positive-displacement Eaton MP62 blower. Part of the Super20's apparent urge is electronic throttle control trickery — a small amount of initial pedal travel goes a long way toward fully opening the engine's floodgates — but there's no denying that the grunt is there if you want it.

In Project Miata, you have to wring the engine's neck since its boost rise is proportional to engine speed. At 3,000 rpm, there's about 3 psi on tap, which is better than zero but not as effective as the 7 psi you get at 7,000 rpm. This progressive-burn power delivery shines best on the track, where you can more easily keep the revs near redline to let the centrifugal supercharger do its strongest work.

Project cars are always evolving, and ours is no exception. A more potent powertrain is being worked up by Keegan Engineering, which is building a long-rod BP engine with JE Pistons and Mil.Spec connecting rods. Stay up to date on this next phase of Project Miata here, as there's more to come with the help of BHJ Engine Dynamics, Trackspeed Engineering, SuperTech Performance, Aviva Instruments and Apex Speed Technology.

The More Things Change
The Mazda MX-5 Super20 is the automotive equivalent of a unicorn sneeze. Despite its status as a runner, it's less a car to be nitpicked and more a symbol of the Miata/MX-5's continual evolution while remaining faithful to the fundamentals of the sports car genre. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, consider this: The original Miata was dreamt up by hard-core sports car enthusiasts at Mazda North America in their late 20s and early 30s, longing for the attributes of the cars with which they spent their youths. Those cars were British roadsters and the Miata was a reflection of its creators' sensibilities.

Fast-forward 20 years and the same situation applies. The hard-core enthusiasts at Mazda today are still in their late 20s and early 30s. However, the reference frame has shifted — they grew up around elemental, rear-drive, fixed-roof coupes and sports cars of a more focused nature than British ragtops. The Super20 is a reflection of its creators' sensibilities.

It's no surprise, really. Both the Super20 and our Project Miata are statements of what's missing in today's car market. In agonizingly short supply are compact, lightweight sporting tin-top cars that drive the wheels at the correct end of the car and place a premium on tactility and reward. It's no wonder everyone's champing at the bit for the 2013 Subaru BRZ — it's a car that for 22 years Mazda had the building blocks in place to create, but didn't.

Our project car possesses all those properties. The Super20 simply takes them a step further. Consider the Mazda MX-5 Super20 a sign that a committed group of enthusiasts within Mazda North American Operations "gets" it.

The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.

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